Sam Sanders and Grammar

Yesterday (as I’m writing this, two days ago as you’re reading this), I saw this tweet series by Sam Sanders (Sam Sanders ‏@samsanders ) who I learned by visiting his twitter profile is part of NPR–which explains why I was so interested–I love NPR (and their journalists). First, here are his tweets (edited only to take care of some formatting that would bother me and no one else):

  1. I feel a tweet storm coming on. Bear with me, folks.

  2. Let’s talk about grammar, correcting people’s grammar, and what that all means. I’ve been noticing it a lot w/listeners recently, and…

  3. To be clear, listeners and readers correcting me and other journo friends. I think grammar is real, it matters, etc. But I also think

  4. That grammar policing can be obnoxious, condescending, and pointless, at its worst. Cause, come on. Think about it.

  5. Words and turns of phrase, and the frigging CREATION OF NEW LANGUAGE, should not be stifled. It should be understood

  6. Also, when I’m doing radio/podcast stuff, I try to talk like a real person would, with you, over a drink. And real people..

  7. Real people, in the real world, RARELY FOLLOW THE RULES OF GRAMMAR. If they did, they would seem obnoxious AF.

  8. Another point, the majority of grammar policing I see is against words, and language created by marginalized groups.

  9. We police language of women for sounding too much like women, of Black people for sounding too black, of gay people for sounding too gay

  10. At its worst, grammar policing is quasi-racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic, etc. NOT SAYING ALL, but for sure some of it can be

  11. & when you look at it that way, if very public, disparaging policing of language actually meant to edify? Or is it doing something else

  12. How often is language and grammar policing used to tell someone of marginalized status they don’t belong, or aren’t smart enough?

  13. And if you really want to help, is tweeting loudly into the night about some arcane grammar rule really the way to get there?

  14. As a student of the culture, I firmly believe that new language is usually created by people that are oppressed/marginalized/ridiculed

  15. It’s a survival tactic. Think: black people, teenaged girls, and the LGBTQ community CREATE culture, language, DAILY

  16. And I am HERE for it. Why police creativity? Why police ingenuity? That’s all I got.

Since grammar is one of my passions, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since I saw it.

First, I never correct people’s grammar. Wait, let me amend for honesty. I never correct people’s grammar out loud to them. I use correct grammar when I’m responding and a few people (mostly students because they’re awesome) have picked up on it. This may be because I grew up in a family that was a bit…prickly…about correction (and would drag out reference books to prove points. Yes, we have reference books. Lots of them). Or perhaps because everyone had good manners and correcting people’s grammar when you aren’t being paid or asked to do so is rude. Parents of learning children are also allowed. Unless it’s an item of general interest, keep it to yourself. (For instance, ye, as in Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe is called a thorn and is pronounced “the.” Interesting, no?)

Second, grammar is important. It’s how language works. And since the advent of printing, the grammar doesn’t usually change too rapidly. Usage does. Yes, I am aware that people use grammar to mean “correct use of the language.” Yes, I do it myself (see name of catagory). However, a lot of what people mean is usage. Here’s something to illustrate the difference: English grammar permits someone to split an infinitive (“to boldly go”). Fuddy-duddy English usage doesn’t (because of Latin. No, that doesn’t make sense. It’s not my rule.)

Because of this, people get a bit confused. They often enshrine their preferences (or more likely, their third grade teacher’s preferences) as an immutable law. And since other people’s internal third grade teachers disagree, we end up with unnecessary arguments and corrections. Depending on the internal grammar person this can, indeed, be “obnoxious, condescending, and pointless, at its worst.” Certainly, there are people who use correction to boost themselves at the expense of others, or as a basis for justifying their prejudices, almost certainly when we’re talking about Sanders. I would bet money, if I had any, that the people correcting him are white (not everything is about race, but this probably is). Condescension,almost certainly. As to pointless, change only comes if the person wants to change (and has a reason to do so). I’m sure that having random people on the internet scolding a person for things that may not actually be wrong isn’t the way to go.

Third, spoken language is obviously less formal than written. The same people who are such sticklers for “correct” language should realize that. Perhaps because this is associated with NPR people believe there’s a higher standard? Non-scripted conversation is even less formal. If that’s the style that Sanders is aiming for, then obviously his listeners should pick up on that, no matter where it appears (on the radio, online). My guess is, for some of these folks, the love of correcting others is of a higher priority than using a wee bit of common sense. However, I would say that some of us are conversationally formal (you try being raised by an English teacher and see what that does to your language.). I’ve had to learn to “loosen up” a bit when speaking because people thought I was weirder than I actually am. I would hope that people don’t think I’m obnoxious because I can use perfect tenses.

However, I find that most people follow the rules of the language. If they didn’t, we would be in the same state as the folks in Middle Age England who sometimes found that villages twenty miles apart spoke barely intelligible Englishes to the point that they didn’t even have the same word for egg (and the words weren’t at all similar). Sometimes a person’s Twitter feed (you know, those young people) is written in an English that is so distinct from my own that I can barely parse it. Now if people who write this way can’t code-switch sufficiently, I can’t imagine how many opportunities they are going to miss out on. Certainly, if they don’t get a good grounding in Standard/Basic/Boring English, then they aren’t going to get hired as readily, if at all. Considering how little grammar is taught in school, and how few things written in Boring English some people read, then I’m not sure how well people will pick up on an English that is radically different then the ones they are exposed to, either spoken or texted.

And yes, that hits people who are poor, who are Black, whose parents aren’t as rigorously educated, who aren’t native speakers disproportionately. I was listening to NPR recently (surprise!) about people who were taking/had taken adult literacy classes (SUCH a good story, by the way). One of the people who was interviewed had started with a (barely) third grade reading level and progressed to a sixth grade (wow!). The relevance here is that, because she wasn’t comfortable with reading, she didn’t read to her children. Reading wasn’t prized. And because of that, none of her girls did as well as they could have because they weren’t fluent readers. If a person is bi-dialectal (speaks two dialects of English), then the specific grammars that the person speaks or writes is just interesting. If, however, the person has only one grammar, and it’s one that isn’t prized, then life is going to be harsher than it needs to be. Grammar does matter–arguably, for people who are less in touch with the majority, grammar matters more. That sucks, but it’s a part of life. People assume that people with non-standard grammar are less worthwhile–which is not only a shame, but also harmful to everyone. I want my students’ voices and ideas to be heard, to be appreciated. But when their subjects and verbs don’t agree, people will dismiss them without hesitation. Standard grammar can be a matter of survival.

Fourth, having written all of that, I like language innovation (I’m still trying to figure out the origin of “yasssss” because I think etymology is interesting). I love that often marginalized people, as Sanders rightly points out, are the creators and promulgators of new expressions, phrases, vocabulary and ideas. I’ve never used “throwing shade” until now, but I’m happy it exists. Maybe because this is vocabulary and usage rather than grammar. What I don’t like is when people abuse my beloved language–like the use of impact because business people couldn’t be bothered to learn the difference between affect and effect. Or randomly decide that there is always singular. (There is four puppies, really? That doesn’t sound wrong?)

Having said all that, I’d like to thank Sanders for making me think about where I stand and decide what was worth defending. I try not to be elitist, and having to examine what I believe and what I do is helpful!

I’m not sure if anyone else will see my distinctions, but I wanted to say my piece as well. What do you all think?

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